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Helping the NY Times Become ‘Truth Vigilantes’

Since they have expressed interest, here are some tips.

by
David Gerstman

Bio

January 21, 2012 - 12:00 am

Last week, Arthur Brisbane — the public editor of the New York Times – asked: “Should the Times be a Truth Vigilante?”

Apparently many of the Times‘ readers count on the paper to cast a skeptical eye on dubious claims of politicians. (Based on Brisbane’s examples, the word “politicians” should be modified with “Republican.”) In response to an email, Brisbane sets out the problems he needs to resolve:

This message was typical of mail from some readers who, fed up with the distortions and evasions that are common in public life, look to The Times to set the record straight. They worry less about reporters imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true.

Is that the prevailing view? And if so, how can The Times do this in a way that is objective and fair? Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another? Are there other problems that The Times would face that I haven’t mentioned here?

Brisbane’s column got me thinking: could being a “truth vigilante” actually improve the New York Times? I believe so.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in everything published in the Times, but I am pretty familiar with its coverage of the Middle East. So if Brisbane would like examples of how his employer could “set the record straight” in a way that is “objective and fair,” here are examples related to news stories that appeared in the Times is 2011.

On January 1, 2011, Isabel Kershner reported “Tear Gas Kills a Palestinian Protester”:

A Palestinian woman died Saturday after inhaling tear gas fired by Israeli forces a day earlier at a protest against Israel’s separation barrier in a West Bank village.

A hospital director, Dr. Muhammad Aideh, said the woman had arrived on Friday suffering from tear-gas asphyxiation and died despite hours of treatment.

Kershner followed up a few days later with “Israeli Military Officials Challenge Account of Palestinian Woman’s Death”:

The army routinely fires CS tear gas against the protesters to keep them away from the barrier and to disperse stone-throwing youths. The gas is toxic and can be lethal in closed environments but is considered nonlethal in the open air. Israeli military officials said the gas used on Friday was exactly the same as that used every week.

Pro-Israel advocates quickly pounced on the Israeli military official’s anonymous conjectures, accusing the Palestinians of fabricating the story of death from tear gas for propaganda purposes. The Palestinians riposted, saying the Israelis were making an underhanded attempt to discredit them and cover up army actions. The Palestinian government’s media center called the Israeli arguments “reprehensible,” describing them as “half truths,” “misinformation” and “lies.”

You see Brisbane’s dilemma: How does the reporter know which claim to challenge and which to let stand? So by presenting both, Kershner demonstrated balance. And shouldn’t balance be the goal of any newspaper? Well, in this case there’s an objective truth that undermines the claims of one side. A “truth vigilante” paragraph in either article would have read:

There are no documented cases of people dying from tear gas inhalation in open spaces as alleged by the Palestinian witnesses to the death of Jawaher Abu Rahma. This casts doubt on the veracity of their testimony that was reported uncritically.

In general, when the Times reports on Israeli violence against Palestinians, it seems that any charge made by the Palestinians is worth reporting without skepticism. Similarly, the Times accepts nearly every claim made by Palestinian leadership at face value.

In March, following the slaughter of the Fogel family, Kershner reported “Abbas Condemns Killing of Jewish Family”:

The new focus on incitement against Israel, together with Israeli dissatisfaction over the Palestinian response to the brutal attack, seemed to pose a question about the Israeli government’s readiness to deal with Mr. Abbas as a serious peace partner — even though Mr. Abbas and Mr. Fayyad are widely considered moderates who have repeatedly said they would never resort to violence.

Mr. Abbas rejected the claims about incitement in mosques, telling Israel Radio that the Palestinian Authority mosques have adopted a unified text for sermons, written by the minister of religious affairs. He called for a joint Israeli-Palestinian-American working committee to investigate claims that Palestinian Authority school textbooks incited violence.

Two paragraphs of “truth vigilantism” would have stated:

Despite his carefully cultivated image as a moderate, incitement in the official Palestinian Authority media remains prevalent under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas. Mr. Abbas himself has been documented publicly extolling terrorists and offering aid to their families.

Contrary to the assertion of the reporter, Israel’s current focus on incitement is not new. Prime Minister Netanyahu demanded an end to it during his first term as prime minister, as well.

The kid glove treatment accorded Abbas stands in sharp contrast to the negative scrutiny that is regularly directed towards his Israeli counterpart. After Prime Minister Netanyahu returned home from his trip to the United States — which included an address to Congress — Ethan Bronner of the New York Times reported: “Israelis See Netanyahu Trip as Diplomatic Failure”:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel returned from Washington on Wednesday to a nearly unanimous assessment among Israelis that despite his forceful defense of Israel’s security interests, hopes were dashed that his visit might advance peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

To make matters worse, the editors of the Times used Bronner’s reporting as a source for an editorial the next day. Since editorials are opinions, I can’t offer any “truth vigilantism” for it, but I can for the news article.

It is true that Bronner limited the scope of his definition of failure to Netanyahu’s failure to “advance peace negotiations.” That assumes, of course, there was anything Netanyahu could have said that would have accomplished that — a proposition that is questionable at best. The real dishonesty is in the headline: “Israelis” should have been modified with “some.” But a headline that read “Netanyahu blasted by Critics, Rivals” wouldn’t be news.

One paragraph would have dispelled the false impression:

The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz – a publication known for being hostile to Prime Minister Netanyahu — reported: “Netanyahu’s popularity soaring following Washington trip”. This contradicts the headline of our article and the implication of the selective quoting of our reporter that Netanyahu’s trip to the United States was unsuccessful.

Using diplomacy as a yardstick of PM Netanyahu’s success or failure is an interesting choice: when Abbas sought to torpedo diplomacy, he was not judged a failure. In November, Abbas made an unsuccessful attempt to reach a unity agreement with Hamas. Isabel Kershner and Fares Akram reported on those efforts with “Rival Palestinian Leaders Meet but Fail to End Rift”:

But differences between the sides clearly prevailed, and since the signing of the accord disincentives for further cooperation have mounted.

Hamas rejects Israel’s existence and is classified as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and Israel. Israel and the West say they will not deal with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas unless the Islamic group recognizes Israel, renounces violence and accepts all previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

Hamas has shown no sign of agreeing to those conditions, and the prospect of a unity government threatens the Palestinian Authority’s relations with Israel, Europe and the United States. It also jeopardizes its finances. Israeli officials have withheld the transfer of about $100 million a month in taxes and customs duties that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinians, in part waiting to see the outcome of the latest unity talks. Meanwhile, for Hamas, the Arab Spring has buoyed hopes of new opportunities for Islamist parties across the region.

It is correct as the final paragraph quoted here that Hamas is encouraged by the Arab Spring. However, the position of Hamas isn’t just problematic because it stands to endanger the funding to a combined Fatah-Hamas government, but because of what it shows about Fatah. In the interests of “truth vigilantism”:

Abbas, by reaching out to Hamas, threatens to undermine the very premise of the peace process. In his famous letter to Yitzhak Rabin in 1993, Abbas’s predecessor and mentor, Yasser Arafat renounced the use of terror as a means of achieving statehood. By allying (or even attempting to ally) with Hamas — which still advocates terror — Abbas is choosing to violate this commitment.

Brisbane’s essay about “truth vigilantism” wasn’t serious. Given that he advocated “correcting” an unknowable judgment and an opinion — both held by Republicans — it suggests his essay was less about accuracy than about how to make the New York Times more partisan than it already is, under the false pretense of making it more accurate.

However, if Brisbane truly is interested in making his paper more accurate, I hope he will consider these examples as models for improving the Times‘ Middle East coverage.

David Gerstman closely monitors and writes about the media.
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